At the invitation of New Orleans Bishop Leo-Raymond De Neckere, French Jesuits accepted the offer to establish a Jesuit presence and a college in Louisiana. Their leader, Father Nicholas Point, subsequently left his post at St. Mary’s College in Kentucky in 1837 and came to Louisiana. He rejected the bishop’s initial offer of a college in Iberville, citing its state of disrepair and his belief that the cost for enslaved people to maintain the college, staff the kitchen, and do other labor would be too great.
Instead, the Jesuits deemed Grand Coteau, just south of Opelousas in St. Landry Parish, a more suitable location for a college. There, in 1837, they established St. Charles College. The Religious of the Sacred Heart, who had been in Grand Coteau since 1821, donated a thousand dollars to help get the college on its feet. They also supplied meals, lumber, and mortar, as well as brick made from clay on their own property, probably by their own enslaved people, at no cost to the Jesuits. When the Sisters of the Sacred Heart had established their convent in Grand Coteau, Mrs. Charles Smith gave them plantation land and some of the Smiths’ own enslaved people to farm the land and serve the sisters.
As the Jesuits defined the boundaries of the parish, enslaved laborers contributed to expanding its wooden church, cultivating the garden, planting trees, and building fences from August until the end of 1837. On January 5, 1838, St. Charles College began in a crude, unheated, wooden structure that served as both classroom and dormitory. The school was understaffed; to alleviate the personnel strain, Point hired lay professors and servants, and rented enslaved people from the Religious of the Sacred Heart and local lay people.
The Jesuits’ Superior General in Rome, Jan Roothan, sent Jesuits from the Missouri Mission in St. Louis to bolster the college staff during the college’s next session, beginning December 1, 1838. On July 14, 1838, he decreed that the Louisiana Mission be transferred from the Province of Paris to the Missouri Mission, under the leadership of Peter Verhaegen. The number of Missouri Jesuits at St. Charles College grew over the course of 1838 and 1839.
The Jesuits began purchasing enslaved people soon after Missouri Jesuits began staffing the college. Ignatius Gough, sold by Maryland slaveowner and Georgetown University graduate Stephen H. Gough and shipped at the age of seventeen from Alexandria, Virginia, to New Orleans in 1835, was the first person purchased by the Jesuits at St. Charles College on February 13, 1839. Later that year on July 20th, Nicholas Point, Superior at St. Charles College, purchased Philadie (or Philodie), a woman of about fifty years of age, and Rachel, her daughter of about nine years of age, from Charles Napoleon Olivier of St. Landry Parish for $1300. Olivier had owned Philadie since April 8, 1809, when he had purchased her as a child at an auction of the estate of Louis Etienne Louaillier of Opelousas. Philadie had other children and family who lived nearby at Bayou Boeuf, whom she and Rachel visited on occasion when the Jesuits permitted. Occasionally, her children Linna and Ned visited them.
While laboring on the Jesuit property, Ignatius Gough became acquainted with a woman named Sally Grayson and her son, George, who were owned by Pierce and Cornelia Connelly, a couple closely associated with the Jesuits at St. Charles College and with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart at their convent. Ignatius and Sally married on June 2, 1839, and later had two children, James Henry Mary and Marie. On April 30, 1842, the Connellys sold Sally and her children to the Jesuits as they prepared to leave for Rome. Ignatius and Sally Gough had seven more children, at least three of whom did not live to adulthood.
The Jesuits purchased Sally, George, James Henry, and Marie Gough in April 1842. Sally’s owner Pierce Connelly sold her and her children to Joseph Stoller, then president of St. Charles College, for $1500.
The Gough family lived in a cabin in the yard of Jesuit-run St. Charles Borromeo Church, which stood near the college, while Philadie and Rachel lived above the dispensary on the campus. In addition to these families whom they owned directly, Jesuits at St. Charles College relied on the labor of more than 47 additional enslaved people until 1865. This number includes the people who were loaned or rented to the Jesuits from neighbors, students, and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Siblings Ben and Frank Hawkins, Jr., as well as their aunt Julia Eaglin, and a woman named Mirante, were among the enslaved people whom the Sacred Heart Sisters and the Jesuits shared. The Jesuits also employed free people of color from time to time.
Enslaved people performed several types of labor for the Jesuits in Grand Coteau. They cooked and baked for the college, cleaned and did repairs, constructed buildings, dug wells, and built fences. Jo, a man enslaved to a neighbor, Widow Robin, spent a few days trimming the floor of the Jesuits’ parlor. In 1851, ten-year-old Henry Gough went with two Jesuit brothers for a couple of days to Plaquemine Brûlé (now known as Chapel Point) to plaster and do other work on a chapel that the Jesuits had designated be built there. In 1860, Augustine, enslaved to a member of the Frozard family, spent a year doing work on the interior of the Jesuit house. Ignatius Gough and other enslaved men drove the Jesuits, students, and guests and their luggage to and from the college and were couriers of goods and messages. Enslaved people were also sent off the property to gather stakes, wood, and lumber, or look for missing horses.
Enslaved people also participated in religious life on the property. They helped prepare for feast days and religious services at St. Charles Borromeo Church and in the Jesuits’ house chapel, and assisted in the services themselves. Philadie, Sally Gough, and all the Gough children were baptized in St. Charles Borromeo Church, and Philadie and Rachel had their First Communions there. They also attended catechism classes led by the Jesuits.
This image, taken from the memoir of Albert Biever, S.J., depicts a Jesuit standing with an unnamed man who was previously enslaved at St. Charles College. We have not yet been able to identify who this man is. His anonymity is emblematic of the violence that slaveholding wrought, not just to individual Black people, but also to the historical record about their lives. We hope that we will one day be able to identify him by name and tell his story, and we honor his life and memory as we work to learn more about the lives of people enslaved to the Jesuits at St. Charles College.
Jesuits offered enslaved people in Grand Coteau small so-called “tips” and “treats” in an attempt to incentivize them to continue working hard and without complaint. They were granted short periods of time off, such as Sundays, or parts of some feast days. On Sundays and feast days their owners sometimes permitted them to partake in finer foods than what they usually provided. A little less than a pint of whiskey when they worked well or on a special occasion, small monetary gifts, or candy for the children, at the new year and on Sundays, etc., were intended to discourage enslaved people from resisting their enslavement or turning against their owners.
Despite the Jesuits’ efforts, enslaved people resented their conditions and risked severe repercussions to resist their enslavement. Several engaged in subtle forms of resistance such as breaking tools, slowing their work, claiming goods on the Jesuit property they felt they had earned by their labor, and taking advantage of being sent on errands off the Jesuits’ property to seek respite from their enslavement or visit kin for a while. Sally’s son George was imprisoned for a Sunday, eating only bread and water for having allegedly defrauded the Jesuits. In 1840, Ignatius Gough and Frank Hawkins, Sr. were both arrested after being implicated in a suspected slave revolt. It is unclear to what extent people enslaved to the Jesuits may have been involved in planning insurrections; Ignatius Gough and Frank Hawkins were both acquitted, much to the relief of their families. More than thirty other enslaved people had been executed by law enforcement and vigilante groups who patrolled the surrounding parishes.
In the 1840s and 1850s, the Jesuits began selling many of the people they owned, and they temporarily closed the college from 1853 to 1856. Rachel was sold to Nicholas Charles Grimmer, music teacher at St. Charles College, on July 14, 1844, after she had been working in their household for hire for a few weeks. Philadie was sold for $200 on September 15, 1847. And at some point between 1852 and 1859, the Gough family was sold to Doctor Henry Jackson Millard, who lived nearby and attended to those at both St. Charles College and the Sacred Heart Convent. The Jesuits continued to rely on the labor of some enslaved people they owned, including Celeste, who was donated from a benefactor in Opelousas to be a cook at the college in January 1852. Philadie, Rachel, and the Gough family all continued to labor in slavery in Grand Coteau near St. Charles College, while the Jesuits proceeded to rely on the labor of enslaved people borrowed and hired from others. Sometimes, local slaveholders loaned as many as ten enslaved people at a time, as the Guidrys, Castilles, and Broussards did in May 1851 to dig a small pool on the Jesuit property.
After slavery was abolished, many of the newly-free families did not go far from the sites of their enslavement. On July 24, 1865 , families and individuals who had been enslaved to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart were presented with a contract by overseer Benjamin Smith, which stated that they could continue living and working on the convent grounds, receiving the same housing, clothing, and food allotments that they had before “for the balance of the year, as they had always done, without pay, for their usual support and maintenance” as long as they agreed to “conduct themselves in a proper manner.” The contract, which the newly freed people were likely unable to read, noted that should anyone chose to leave, they would be compensated “in some manner for their labor, according to the degree of satisfaction they may have given.” Smith claimed in the contract that the inability to compensate the newly-free laborers was because the sisters did not have enough money at that time, and that he himself had not been paid for several years. However, it is probable that this may have been a manipulative tactic as well, to use these contracts to place formerly enslaved people into states of continued involuntary servitude. Like the many African Americans who remained virtually enslaved under sharecropping or convict leasing programs, people previously held in bondage by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart were likely also cheated out of wages earned.
At St. Charles College, a man named Weston and his family moved onto the Jesuit property in 1866 to attend to their “country-house.” By 1868, the family moved into their own newly built home. Weston and his family were among many hired laborers—Black and white—whom the Jesuits employed after the Civil War to do domestic and field labor. People the Jesuits formerly enslaved also still lived and worked in the area, and many continued to attend the Jesuit-run St. Charles Borromeo Church. Rachel, members of the Gough family, and others worked as domestic servants and tenant farmers for former slaveholders in the vicinity for several decades after the Civil War.
This research was compiled by Kelly L. Schmidt.
Recommended citation: Kelly L. Schmidt, “Enslavement at St. Charles College, Grand Coteau, Louisiana,” Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, 2021.
Updated: January 2021